The first time it hit me how important mentors are is four years ago, when I interviewed Ellen Fagenson Eland, former professor at George Mason University. She gave me stunning statistics about how important mentors are to your career.
Eland gave me a seven-step plan for finding mentors (yes, you need a small group of them). And since then, I’ve written about other aspects as well — mostly as a way to keep myself focused on the task because it’s so important and so difficult.
Getting mentors is difficult because it’s just like dating: You have to invest a lot of time in a lot of people to find the ones who will really change your life. Over the years, I’ve had lots of different types of mentors. The eccentric CEO who showed me that success does not preclude weirdness, and my secret mentor who popped up unexpectedly. But the one I am feeling best about right now is a guy in Palo Alto, Chris Yeh. He turned out to be a real gem, so I’m going to tell you how it happened.
1. Recognize someone who thinks in ways that complement you.
I was interviewing a guy for my column in the Boston Globe, and I asked him, as I often do, if he had any friends who would be interesting to talk with. He gave me Chris Yeh’s name. I was immediately struck by Chris’s ability to talk on a wide range of topics that I care about a lot. And as a Harvard Business school grad living in Palo Alto, he brings a fresh perspective to my own.
2. Do favors. Again and again.
I immediately thought to myself, what can I do for Chris? I asked him what he is aiming to do next, what his plans are for the future, where he’s headed. He said he wanted to write a book about fatherhood, so I put him in contact with my agent.
3. Stay in touch continually.
I did not actually do this myself. Chris did. He would call at random times, just to say hi. I know very few people in business who do this. Most people email or IM, or, if they really want to talk on the phone, we schedule a call. Chris was different—I was not really his friend, and we were in different time zones, so he made the effort to figure out when I was most likely to be able to talk. Now I see that this as a super smart approach I should have initiated myself to build the relationship.
4. Ask for a formal relationship.
When I started my company, I asked Chris to be an advisor. He said yes, and then he told me the best way to use advisors, based on his experience at his own companies: Call at times you know are easy for them to talk, keep them up to date, and ask them what you should be asking them about.
The first time I asked Chris, “What should I be asking you now?” I felt silly. After all, it’s a line he fed me. But now I use it with him all the time, and it’s actually an invitation for him to tell me what he thinks I’m missing, which is information I wouldn’t get if I directed the conversation the whole time.
5. Invest time.
I had talked with Chris for hours and hours without meeting him in person. When I interviewed Edward Hallowell about his book, Crazy Busy, he described his research about face-to-face contact—how meeting for a just a few minutes changes the nature of a relationship. So I decided to meet Chris in person. On a trip to Los Angeles, I decided to fly to Palo Alto especially to meet him.
The trip took a lot of time, but I discovered that, true to what Hallowell says, meeting in person makes the relationship feel qualitatively deeper by virtue of the fact that you get that whole other layer of nonverbal communication.
Addendum: I called Chris this morning to make certain it was okay to use his name in this post. And he said “Sure, and tell people if they can’t find a mentor, they can ask me questions”?and you can link to Ask the Harvard MBA.” So there’s the link. And see, I told you—you have to keep doing favors.